One step at a time

Transport professionals are itching to set the 'new normal' for transport on a sounder environmental footing. In the rail sector, there is a view that now is a once-in a lifetime chance for a fundamental re-set, sweeping aside all recent frustrations, restructuring to support 'building back better'.

No need to waiver, just implement the Williams' Review findings, this narrative runs. The franchises are all dead, so there is no need for a protracted run-down period. Convert them into concessions with minimal revenue risk, expand Network Rail's role into a 'guiding mind' and press on. Add in a rolling electrification programme of (Scotland has just announced its plan for 130 track-km/year) to help get the transport sector to net zero carbon. Simplify fares, remove a few trains from the most over-stretched parts of the network, and hey presto!

Of course, with far fewer customers and largely unchanged levels of service, such a programme adds costs, rather than shaving them. This is a scary recipe from a Treasury standpoint, even before somebody adds in devolution of service specification oversight. Subsidy is running at £5bn per annum levels.

It would be wiser to try a step-by-step approach, showing how revenue streams can be best restored as and when Government feels able to support greater public transport use consistent with minimal levels of virus transmission risk. The fact the France has been running TGVs with 100% load factors is no more encouraging than similar approaches being taken by airlines if the result is Covid-19 levels tick upwards.

Good work is being done on passenger and staff health security. As we gradually move towards a better understanding of local infection rates and management, maybe we can move to managed, area-by-area, 'welcome back to public transport' plans, with fares incentives and the like. After such stern warnings against doing so, rail travellers are going to need encouragement to return. How about medical facilities at major stations to check temperatures, provide testing and a chance for health check-ups? Why not make the inevitable 'return to rail' fares offerings part of the learning programme to apply the new simplified fares arrangements that are so desperately needed?

Such an approach has feed-back loops built into it. The strategy is to apply, learn and adapt, creating a virtuous circle, seeding changes of lasting value, and building revenue gradually.
The medical and epidemiological consensus is that the path ahead will have set-backs in terms of virus control. So, a world in which passenger use and revenues rise and then in some cases drop again has to be anticipated.

While all this is happening, it would be wise of DfT to pass a large part of day-to-day management to Network Rail. To make this practicable, given the need to account for high outlays of funding support though the emergency management agreements with multiple train operating companies, it would make sense for the DfT franchise (as was) management team to de-camp to Network Rail. This could allow the first, managed steps, towards re-integrating 'track and train' and simplified management decision making. Culture shock? Get over it.

With the day-to-day operational people out of Ministers' reach (but still subject Government oversight of virus management rules, of course), the policy people at DfT can get down to what they excel at: changing and refining the organisational and regulatory oversight of the sector. Much of what was in the 1993 Railways Act, replete with a Franchising Director, independent regulation of Infrastructure Managers and Railway Undertakings, rights of train operating companies etc no longer apply. Although private sector rail freight operators will still need to be accommodated.

The legislative change needed to tidy this up and create economies on one hand and customer benefits on the other, is not necessarily as time consuming as might be thought. The transformational 1993 Act came just 18 months after a largely unexpected General Election outcome, for instance. Its implementation – at lightning speed – ran for just 3½ years. Full delivery is achievable before the next general election, in other words. In the meantime, measures to cut costs must be faced.

While this is underway, we can but hope that the virus permits, as described, at least in some places a gradual 'return to public transport' that we know is so essential to the recovery of city economies. As rail ridership gets back to say 30-40% of pre-virus levels, business recovery should become apparent and confidence in finding safe ways to travel strengthened. Then is the time to urge adoption of green investment plans in electrification and other measures. In the meantime, Government should support the quiet planning needed so that when the time comes, projects can be launched rapidly, without a set of business case hurdles to negotiate. Step by step, is the way to go.

Jim Steer, Director, Greengauge 21